THE LORD, THE RESTORER OF HIS PEOPLE
Extracts from Personal Declension and Revival of Religion in the Soul by Octavius Winslow – published 1841.
“He restoreth my soul.” Psalm 23.3.
“If his children forsake my law, and walk not in my judgments; if they break my statutes, and keep not my commandments; then will I visit their transgression with the rod, and their iniquity with stripes. Nevertheless, my loving-kindness will I not utterly take from him, nor suffer my faithfulness to fail: my covenant will I not break, nor alter the thing that is gone out of my lips.” Psalm 89.30-34.
It will be seen, that two most solemn and affecting truths are recognised in this passage, – the backslidings of a child of the covenant, and the certainty of his restoration. That there exists a necessity for the Divine restorings, who can doubt, that remembers that the Divine life of a believer has its residence in a heart but partially renewed and sanctified?In the case of Adam before he fell, this was not so; there was nothing in his heart opposed to the life of God within him.
But it is not so now. Adam fell, and in his fall transmitted to his posterity a nature totally corrupt in every part; and although Divine and sovereign grace has undertaken to renew that nature, and does so in part, yet it is but in part renewed and restored to its original glory. The Divine life has its dwelling-place in a fallen, fleshly nature. One sentence of the apostle’s explains and confirms this truth, – “The life which I now live in the flesh,” Gal. 2.20: the Divine life which he lived, was in the flesh. It was encompassed by all the corruptions, weaknesses, infirmities, and assaults of the flesh; there was not a moment that it was not exposed to assaults from within; there was not a natural faculty of the mind, or throb of the heart, that was favourable to its prosperity, but all were contrary to its nature, and hostile to its advance. Let every believer remember, that the Divine life which he lives, he lives in the flesh; and that there exists not a day that he stands not in need of the restorings of the Lord.
Connect with this the many external influences which are hostile to the Divine life in the soul. As there is nothing internal that is favourable to a state of grace, so there is nothing external that assists it forward. It has its many and violent enemies: Satan is ever on the watch to assault it, – the world is ever presenting itself in some new form of fascination and power to weaken it, – a thousand temptations are perpetually striving to ensnare it; thus its internal and external enemies are leagued against it. Is it, then, any wonder that faith should sometimes tremble, that grace should sometimes decline, and that the pulse of the Divine life should often beat faintly and feebly?
The saints in every age have felt and lamented this. Hence the prayer of David, which is the prayer of all true believers: “Hold thou me up, and I shall be safe”; implying the greatest weakness in himself, and his perpetual exposure to the greatest falls; “Hold thou me up, for only as I am upheld by thee, am I safe.” Again he prays: “Keep back thy servant also from presumptuous sins; let them not have dominion over me”;
implying that a believer left to the tendencies of his fallen nature, might become a prey to the worst sins: “Keep back thy servant also from presumptuous sins.” In addressing himself to the converted Hebrews, the apostle seizes the occasion thus to exhort them: “Take heed, brethren, lest there be in any of you an evil heart of unbelief in departing from the living God.” “In departing,” – implying a constant tendency to depart from God. And what does God Himself say of His people? “My people are bent to backsliding from me.” And again, “Why is this people of Jerusalem slidden back by a perpetual backsliding?” Yes, it is a perpetual proneness to declension. The sun rises but to set, the clock is wound up but to run down; and not more natural is it for them thus to obey the laws that govern them, than for the heart of a child of God to follow the promptings of its corrupt and wayward nature.
This leads us to touch upon the principle of all departure from God. We look at a believer’s lax practice, we mourn and weep over it, and we do well; we trace our own, and still deeper shame and confusion of face cover us: but we forget that the cause of our bitterest sorrow and humiliation should be, the concealed principle of evil from whence springs this unholy practice. How few among the called of God, are found confessing and mourning over the sin of their nature – the impure fountain from whence flows the stream, the unmortified root from whence originates the branch, and from which both are fed and nourished! This is what God looks at, – the sin of our fallen, unsanctified nature, – and this is what we should look at, and mourn over. This brings us to the consideration of His restoring mercy.
The first point we would look at is, the love of the Lord Jesus in restoring a wandering believer. Nothing but the most infinite, tender, unchanging love, could prompt Him to such an act. There is so much of black ingratitude, so much of deep turpitude in the sin of a believer’s departure from the Lord, that but for the nature of Christ’s love, there could be no possible hope of this return. Now this costly love of Christ is principally seen in His taking the first step in the restoring of the soul: the first advance is on the part of the Lord. This is too important a truth to be lightly touched upon. There is no more self-recovery after, than there is before, conversion; it is entirely the Lord’s work. The same state of mind, the same principle that led to the first step in declension from God, leads on to each successive one: until, but for restraining and restoring grace, the soul would take an everlasting farewell of God. But mark the expression of David, – “He restoreth my soul.” Who? He of whom he speaks in the first verse as his Shepherd, – “The Lord is my Shepherd.” It is the Shepherd that takes the first step in the recovery of he wandering sheep.
Not less conspicuous is the power of Jesus in the restoring of the soul: “He restoreth my soul,” – He, the Omnipotent Shepherd. We want omnipotence to bring us back when we have wandered; nothing less can accomplish it. We want the same power that converted, to re-convert; the power that created, to re-create us. This power Jesus possesses. It was essential to the full salvation of His church that He should have it; therefore, when praying to His Father, He says, “As thou hast given him power over all flesh,” – why this power? – “that he should give eternal life to as many as thou hast given him.” It was necessary that He should have power over all flesh, yea, over all the powers leagued against the church, that He should bring to glory all that were given to Him in the covenant of grace.
Now this power is gloriously exerted in the restoring of the soul. Jesus works in the believer, in order to his recovery. He breaks down the hard heart, arrests the soul in its onward progress of departure, places upon it some powerful check, lays it low, humbles, abases it, and then draws from it the blessed acknowledgment, “Behold, I am vile; but, he restoreth my soul.”
There is infinite wisdom, too, in the Lord’s restorings. This perfection of Jesus is clearly revealed here: in the way He adopts to restore, we see it. That He should make, as He frequently does, our very affllctions the means of restoration to our souls, unfolds the profound depth of His wisdom. This was David’s prayer, – “Quicken me according to thy judgments”: and this was his testimony, – “Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now have I kept thy word”; – “Though I walk in the midst of trouble, thou wilt revive me.” The season of trial is not unfrequently the sanctified season of revival. Who that has passed through the furnace has not found it so? Then the declension of the soul has been discovered, – then the hidden cause of that declension has been brought to light, – then the spirit has bowed in contrition before he Lord, – then grace has been stirred up in the heart, and a new sweetness has been given to prayer, and a new impulse to faith, and a new radiance to hope, and from the flame the gold and the silver have emerged, purified of their tin and dross.
Nor must we overlook the gentleness of the Lord’s restoring. We have a beautiful exhibition of this in the recovery of the stray sheep, as set forth by Jesus Himself: “What man of you, having an hundred sheep, if he lose one of them, doth not leave the ninety and nine in the wilderness, and go after that which is lost, until he find it? And when he hath found it, he layeth it on his shoulders, rejoicing.” Luke 15.4,5. Here is the gentleness of the shepherd, – “he layeth it on his shoulders.” Too feeble itself to walk, too exhausted in its wanderings to return, the gentle shepherd having sought and found it, “lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing.” Touching picture of the Saviour’s gentleness in restoring a backsliding soul! What but infinite gentleness is seen in the restoring of Peter? It was but a look; – not a word fell from the lips of the Saviour – not an unkind rebuke, not a harsh upbraiding word did He breathe; yet that look – what artist’s pencil has ever been able to imitate it? – that look so full of love, so full of gentleness, so full of forgiveness, did seem to say, “I am going to die for thee, Peter – all this and more I suffer for thee; wilt thou, canst thou deny me?” that look, so touching, so melting, so eloquent, and so forgiving, reached the heart of the backsliding apostle, melted it, broke it, and sent him from the judgment-hall weeping bitterly. There was no expression in the look which Jesus bent upon Peter, but love. Let this truth be fixed in the heart of every backsliding believer.
But we have yet to speak of the way of a poor backslider’s return to the Lord. May the Spirit impart wisdom and unction in unfolding this most important point! First, as touching the spirit with which he should return.
Looking at the case of the backsliding church of Ephesus, we find the nature of her sin, and the mode of her recovery, thus set forth: “I have somewhat against thee, because thou hast left thy first love. Remember, therefore, from whence thou art fallen, and repent and do the first works.” The first exhortation addressed to her was, “Remember, therefore, from whence thou art fallen.” She was first called to solemn reflection upon her former state of prosperity.
Let the backsliding believer be brought to this first step. “Remember From whence thou art fallen”; – revert to thy past history, thy former spiritual state; – remember thy first sorrow for sin, the first joy of its pardon; – remember the spring-tide of thy first love – how precious Jesus was, how glorious was His person, how sweet was His cross, how fragrant was His name, how rich was His grace; – remember how holy, and circumspect, and spotless was your walk, how tender was your conscience, how guileless was your spirit, how humble and lowly your whole deportment. But what and where are you now? O remember from whence you are fallen! May you not truly inquire with the sweet poet of Olney,
“Where is the blessedness I knew
When first 1 saw the Lord?
Where is the soul-refreshing view
Of Jesus and his word?
“What peaceful hours I once enjoyed!
How sweet their memory still;
But they have left an aching void
The world can never fill.
“Return, O holy Dove, return,
Sweet messenger of rest!
I hate the sins that made thee mourn,
And drove thee from my breast.”
In the exhortation given to the backsliding church at Ephesus, there is yet another instruction equally applicable to the case of all wanderers from the Lord: “Repent and do the first works.” How can a departing soul return without repentance? by what other avenue can the prodigal reach his Father’s heart? Repentance implies the existence and conviction of sin. Ah! is it no sin, beloved reader, to have turned thy back upon God? is it no sin to have lost thy first love, to have backslidden from Jesus, to have transferred thy affections from Him to the world, or to the creature, or to thyself? is it no sin to go no more with the Shepherd, and to follow no more the footsteps of the flock, and to feed no more in the green pastures, or repose by the side of the still waters? O yes! it is a sin of peculiar magnitude; it is a sin against God in the character of a loving Father, against Jesus in the character of a tender Redeemer, against the Holy Spirit in the character of a faithful Indweller and a Sanctifier; it is a sin against the most precious experience of His grace, against the most melting exhibitions of His love, and against the most tender proofs of His covenant faithfulness.
Repent, then, of this thy sin. Think how thou hast wounded Jesus afresh, and repent; think how thou hast requited thy Father’s love, and repent; think how thou hast grieved the Spirit, and repent.
All real return of a backsliding soul is through Jesus. Jesus is God’s great Door of approach to His throne. Thus has the Holy Ghost unfolded this truth: “Having, therefore, brethren, boldness to enter into the holiest by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way, which he hath consecrated for us through the veil, that is to say, his flesh; and having an High Priest over the house of God; let us draw near.” O blessed Door of return for a poor, backsliding, heart-broken believer! – a crucified Saviour, in whom God is well pleased, and for whose sake He can receive the sinner, and put away his sin, can welcome the backslider, and heal his backsliding.
Nor must we overlook the gracious work of the Spirit in the restoring of a backsliding soul; but for Him, not a step in the way of return would be taken on the part of the believer. What debtors are we to the blessed and eternal Spirit! What reverential views should we entertain of His person, and what tender thoughts should we cherish of His work!
The encouragements to return to the Lord are many and great: in the first place, we have the gracious invitations of God Himself. How numerous and touching are these! Where is the heart, deeply conscious of its backsliding, that can resist the power of language like this: “Go, and proclaim these words towards the north, and say. Return, thou backsliding Israel, saith the Lord; and I will not cause mine anger to fall upon you: for I am merciful, saith the Lord, and will not keep anger for ever.” Jer.3.12. Here is a warrant for your return – God’s own free invitation! You want no more.
The character of God is such as encourages the return of a backsliding soul. In the invitations He has given, He urges them upon the ground of what He is: “Return, thou backsliding Israel, saith the Lord; and I will not cause mine anger to fall upon you: for I am merciful, saith the Lord.” Merciful to receive you, merciful to pardon you, merciful to heal you. O the boundless mercy of God in Christ towards a soul returning from its wanderings! Will not this draw you?
Nor must we overlook the grand source of encouragement to a returning soul, – that which springs from the cross of Christ. But for a crucified Saviour, there could be no possible return to God; in no other way could He consistently with the holiness and rectitude of the Divine government, with what He owes to Himself as a just and holy God, receive a poor wandering, returning sinner. Mere repentance and humiliation for, and confession of, sin, could entitle the soul to no act of pardon. The obedience and death of the Lord Jesus laid the foundation, and opened the way for the exercise of this great and sovereign act of grace. The cross of Jesus displays the most awful exhibition of God’s hatred of sin, and at the same time the most august manifestation of His readiness to pardon it.
If the Lord has restored thy soul, dear reader, remember why He has done it, – to make thee hate thy sins. He hates them, and He will make thee to hate them too: and this He does by pardoning them, by sprinkling the atoning blood upon the conscience, and by restoring unto you the joys of His salvation. And never is sin so sincerely hated, never is it so deeply deplored, so bitterly mourned over, and so utterly forsaken, as when He speaks to the heart, and says, “Thy sins are forgiven thee, go in peace.” As though He did say, “I have blotted out thy transgressions, I have healed thy backslidings, I have restored thy soul: ‘that thou mayst remember and be confounded, and never open thy mouth any more because of thy shame, when I am pacified toward thee for all that thou hast done, saith the Lord God.’ ” Ezek. 16.63.
And do not overlook, in this great business of restoration, the intercession of Jesus, the High Priest, at the right hand of God. If thy heavenly Father has restored thy soul, not only has He done it from the spring of His own unchangeable love, but that which has prevailed with Him was the power of the sweet incense of the Redeemer’s blood before the mercy-seat. Moment by moment does this fragrant cloud go up, bearing as it ascends all the circumstances of all the Israel of God. There is not only the blood already sprinkled on the mercy-seat, which has satisfied Divine justice, but there is the constant pleading of the blood by Jesus, the Priest, before the throne.
In view of all these precious encouragements, persuasive motives, and earnest expostulations, will you, dear backsliding soul, still refuse to return? I entreat you, I implore you, I beseech you, to arise and go to your Father, and say unto Him, ” Father, I have sinned against heaven and in thy sight.” By all that is tender and forgiving in that Father’s heart, – by all that is melting, persuasive, and precious in the work of Jesus, – by His agony and bloody sweat, by His cross and passion, by His death, burial, and resurrection, I beseech you to return! By the honour of that holy religion you have wounded, by all the hopes of glory you have indulged in, by all that is sacred and precious in the memory of the past, and by all that is solemn and real in the prospect of the future, I implore you to return! By the faithful promises of God, by the tender yearnings of Jesus, by the gentle drawings of the Spirit, by all that you will experience in the joy and peace and assurance of a restored soul, by the glory of God, by the honour of Christ, by the nearness of death and the solemnity of the judgment, I entreat, I emplore, I beseech you, wanderer, prodigal, to return!
“Return, O wanderer, return!
And seek an injured Father’s face;
Those warm desires that in thee burn,
Were kindled by reclaiming grace.
“Return, O wanderer, return!
Thy Saviour bids thy spirit live;
Go to his bleeding side, and learn
How freely Jesus can forgive.
“Return, O wanderer, return!
Regain thy lost, lamented rest;
Jehovah’s melting bowels yearn
To clasp his Ephraim to his breast.”